Sunday, February 18, 2018

My Favorite Time of the Year

A not uncommon question others ask me in reference to the garden is, "What is your favorite season?"

I often feel that they expect me to respond with "Spring," or perhaps "Summer."

My actual response, "Whatever season I'm in."

True to that response, I really love this time of year. Winter still reigns, with all of the ups and downs the local climate has assumed in recent years. The trees remain leafless. The warm season grasses rattle and crunch underfoot, and give a brown glow to the landscape. Even the weeds have almost stopped popping up -- although some that had sprouted before the worst winter cold remain green.

Winter grips the land, in spite of our recent warm days. The only green in the garden, besides the small patches of henbit, can be found in the diminished patch of leeks from last summer. I've wintered them in place by mostly burying them in hay and covering them with an old comforter during the coldest days and nights.

But we have left Deep Winter. One can feel the stirring of Spring. Last week I noticed green spears of crocus leaves emerging in the narrow strip between the house and sidewalk. While digging a couple of days ago I uncovered daffodil bulbs with little white shoots getting ready to poke their heads into the light.

Geese have returned to the sky, on their way to northern
nesting sites. Buds swell on the apple trees. The forecast holds contradictions... today's high winds, and warm and dry weather give us conditions ripe for wildfires; in two days we may experience freezing rain (everyone's favorite -- not). The world transitions from winter to spring, creating highly fickle weather, that even the best forecasters can't accurately predict. We have divided the year neatly into four seasons, but there's nothing "neat" about the real seasons. In truth we have many, including these seasons of transition.

This seems a period of precarious balance in the world. While I can feel the excitement building as bulbs and roots and seeds stir in anticipation of spring, the garden remains asleep. I won't plant outdoors for at least another month. I walk through the sleeping garden without hurry. Many tasks can be done now -- at least when a few warm days thaw the soil -- but I feel no rush, no crunch, no flurry. Weeds don't grow out of control overnight. Few of the tasks have hard and fast deadlines, unlike the tasks of spring and summer.

I feel myself breathing. I allow myself time to walk through my wild places, to sit in my Sanctuary among the cedar trees. And the winter garden is beautiful. I can see its bones. I can feel its soul. In some ways, I feel more at peace now than when green growth threatens to overwhelm me. I rest. I write. I am. I feel myself in deeper communion with the natural world around me.


Yet it is a time of great anticipation.

This has got to be my favorite season.

And next month, when we observe the Spring Equinox. I will say the same thing. But today I will stay here and enjoy the gifts of this season.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

More Horsing Around

I know, I know, I've already told you all about horseradish and what a wonderful thing it is.

But the other day it was time to make some more prepared horseradish, so I thought I'd let you tag along, show you the ropes, how easy it is to make your own prepared horseradish.

What you need for this are:
Horseradish root (well, duh!)
A good paring knife, preferably serated
A good vegetable peeler
A sturdy blender or food processor (we have a Vitamix)
Some water
Vinegar, I prefer cider vinegar, but use what you like
Jars to put the prepared root in

Back in November or December I dug a bunch of the root right before the weather turned bitterly cold. I didn't want to take the time to clean it, so I left it in a five-gallon bucket in our attached garage. I figured that would be like the refrigerator. I should have covered the horseradish to prevent moisture loss -- not tightly, but loosely -- as by the time I got around to cleaning it some of the thinner pieces had gone a little limp; but no worries, it was still good. To clean, I put the roots in a dish tub full of water and let them soak for a while to loosen the dirt still clinging to them. Then I scrubbed off the dirt and cut away any bits that were funky or too old or otherwise not usable. Then I but them in a crisper drawer in the fridge. They also can be put in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator. Just be sure you use them before they start molding.

Fast forward to processing day.

Peel the roots with your vegetable peeler and cut away any spots, discolored ends, etc.
Cut roots into small chunks, like about one-inch long pieces. Roots with a large diameter should be cut smaller. Put all your chunks in the blender or food processor. And add water. You'll need water or your blender will burn up. I think I put in enough water to go halfway up the root in the blender. You can add more, but my husband doesn't like his horseradish too juicy, so I used vinegar as some of the blending liquid. Because I knew that I would have at least three cups of prepared horseradish, I put in enough vinegar for that amount of sauce, and added more later when it became apparent how much I would have. Supposedly, adding the vinegar right away tames down the mustardy heat. I don't know. If this horseradish was tamed by the immediate addition of vinegar, I am glad I didn't wait.

So, how much vinegar?

Two to 3 tablespoons per cup of prepared horseradish. I lean toward the larger amount.

Now blend/process. Stop every couple of minutes or so to give the motor a rest. The Vitamix has some kind of sensor that will stop it before you completely burn up the motor. I managed to avoid that until the very end. You can ruin your machine if you don't give it a rest.

When it becomes clear how much prepared horseradish you will have, add the rest of the vinegar.

DO NOT PUT YOUR FACE DIRECTLY OVER THE BLENDER/PROCESSOR WHEN YOU OPEN IT. Unless you want searing pain in your eyes and sinuses. I do my blending on the counter next to my cook stove so I can run the range hood fan to exhaust any mustard gas fumes from the horseradish. Next I shovel the prepared horseradish into canning jars and cap them tightly. I got three pints and one half pint out of this batch.

Store in the refrigerator. Don't wait too long to use it, as its potency deteriorates over time. It's best to store fresh root in the refrigerator and process only as much as you can use in a couple of months. Eat frequently to get the maximum health benefits from it and because it really perks up food. I like mixing it with my homemade apple butter. I spread it on my baked salmon and even just eat the blend on its own. Maybe put some horseradish on your apple pie. Mash horseradish in with avocado. Mix in with mashed potatoes. Good food.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Horsing Around

Berries on the red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) are a striking blue against the deep green foliage.
Winter is indeed upon us at last. I was beginning to think that my rosemary plants might be able to make it through this winter, since we had high temperatures in the 50s and even 60s Fahrenheit, with only occasional dips into the upper 30s and 40s for highs, through the Winter Solstice on the 21st. After that, the forecast said, we would see highs in the 30s, more "use-to-be-normal" temperatures.

That changed quite rapidly and unexpectedly, however. Within a few days we had highs in the teens and single-digit lows and by New Year's Day we were facing single-digit HIGHS and below zero lows. As I write this the temperature readout sits at 9 degrees F, but the National Weather Service thinks we'll almost reach 30 degrees today. By Saturday we should break above the freezing point and Sunday looks positively warm with a high in the low 40s.

Needless to say, I haven't spent much time outdoors during the past couple of weeks. No worries, though, as I have plenty of things to keep me busy indoors. I'm back to work on my book, and finally have a tentative publication date of December. More on that as the date nears.

When this first cold wave hit I felt relief. I even welcomed the sub-zero temps. As I cut back the horseradish leaves this fall I noticed that the harlequin bugs were making a comeback. They moved in several years ago from a bit warmer climate and cannot take that kind of cold. Someone else pointed out that the "sky chiggers," the oak gall itch mites, also would be taken out by the cold. Hurray! Dare I hope it will cut down on the squash bugs, too? One can dream.

Because the initial forecast was far more mild than it turned out to be, I thought we might still have a few weeks before the ground froze, so I didn't finish all of the tasks that require digging. I dug more horseradish, though, and heavily mulched the horseradish beds to delay freezing. With the below-zero temperatures and no temps above freezing for a couple of weeks, I'm not sure whether the mulch will be sufficient to keep the horseradish beds unfrozen.

Yesterday I finally scrubbed the horseradish roots I dug before the cold hit. I had simply stuck them in a bucket and left them in our attached garage. They were beginning to get a little limp, but they'll still make a fine horseradish sauce. I prepare my horseradish in a blender, on the counter next to our range so I can turn on the exhaust fan. The fumes from grinding horseradish can be quite powerful. It is important to hold your face away from the blender when you open or much pain and watering of the eyes. Add water to blend, then add vinegar -- 2-3 tablespoons per cup of prepared horseradish. The sooner you add the vinegar the less "hot" the sauce will be. But I put the vinegar in shortly after I begin blending and it is still incredibly potent. I can't imagine it being more potent.

Horseradish has been on the menu and in the medicine chest for at least 3,500 years. The earlier evidence of its use comes from Egypt in 1500 BCE. It is eaten as one of the bitter herbs during Passover. The ancient Greeks rubbed it into their skin to ease lower back pain and even considered it an aphrodisiac (eaten, rather than rubbed into the essential parts, I presume). In the late 1600s, inns offered it in a cordial to exhausted travelers. Recipes for "fire cider" include horseradish among their ingredients. Fire cider is made with cider vinegar and various antimicrobial herbs, and sipped frequently to prevent winter illnesses. In spite of it containing horseradish and cayenne, I didn't taste any "fire" in it when I made it.
Beet and Apple Soup with Horseradish Cream

Horseradish has multiple culinary uses. I like simply stirring it into dishes. Last year while looking for recipes using horseradish I found one for Beet and Apple Soup with Horseradish Cream. I've altered the recipe, adding cabbage (because it seemed a rather German recipe and I couldn't imagine it without cabbage), and other vegetables, as well as some thyme to season, and... well I can't leave any recipe unaltered. But it's good. And I don't bother with the "cream" part, I just stir in plain prepared horseradish. It's one of the few dishes I make that I think of as "German." Most of my ancestors come from Germany and it's nice to have a recipe from the Old Country, even though I've never identified with my German heritage.

The German name for horseradish is "meerrettich," meaning "sea radish." Some theorize that the name was Anglicized as "mare radish," then further corrupted, changing "mare" to "horse." The root has nothing to do with horses, and is even toxic to them.

If you want some recipe ideas, head on over to (yes, a whole Web site about horseradish). You will find dozens of recipes there, although I think they could easily expand their information on horseradish in general.

For humans, horseradish is a nutritious and medicinal food. It boosts immunity, contains antioxidants and vitamin C, boost the metabolism, is anti-microbial, and benefits respiratory issues. Take a bite of horseradish and you can feel its effects immediately on the sinuses. Horseradish has many other medicinal qualities, as well. Make horseradish vinegar as a rinse to treat dandruff, or use as a poultice or liniment to treat muscle aches, arthritis and rheumatism, or as a chest rub for congestion.

Horseradish is a member of the cabbage/mustard family and is a persistent perennial. When you read about cultivating horseradish the authors will tell you to save smaller root pieces as you dig and replant them. I've never found that necessary. It is nearly impossible for me to dig out all of the root, and wherever root is left in the soil, new plants will rise. So plant it in a permanent spot because you ain't getting rid of it. And the patch will gradually expand in size. I have to work at keeping it from overtaking the paths that surround the horseradish bed. It is presumable attacked by any pest that likes cabbages and mustards, but I've only found harlequin bugs in it. Since they don't attack the roots, I don't worry about them, except to keep them from spreading to the other cabbage/mustard family vegetables.

Horseradish is a very easy care vegetable/herb. I hope that the mulch will allow me to dig at least one more batch of roots (which are best dug in fall after frost kills the leaves, then through the winter when ground is not frozen) this winter. Perhaps the rain forecast for Sunday will help. First I'll peel and prepare the roots I have. Bon apetit.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thank You, Universe

I send my thanks to the Universe for all that I have
(and in some cases, for what I don't have).
I live in Peace,
May all the world do so.
I live with Love,
May all the world do so.
I am warmth, well fed,
Warmly clothed, and content;
May all the world find these blessings.
I face each day knowing that I am blessed.
I face each challenge knowing that I am blessed.
May all the world do so.

P.S. The photo is of the blooms on my Thanksgiving Cactus. It began blooming a couple of weeks ago and likely will continue until late December. Its ancestors were born in the rainforests of Brazil, where they grow in trees in March through May, because that is fall there. I can only imagine seeing these hanging in the treetops. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Another Edge

Sunset; another edge, a time of transition.

One benefit of winter in Kansas is the beauty of our sunsets. While living surrounded by trees has many benefits, shielding us from the view of the rest of the world, it does block the view of the horizon. Still, the colors are wonderful.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Circle Continues...

At the edge...
Tree branches stark against a gray sky.
Winds swirl leaves in the grass.
The Turkey Vultures no longer soar on high.
Summer releases her hold with a sigh.
I stand at the edge of the woods
Looking deeper within;
Standing at the edge of this world;
Morning glories, still glorious.
Now the veil is thin.
I feel the edge, soft and gray;
The distance between this world
And what is beyond is the same
as a leaf's edge. My hand reaches through
So I can touch you.

We experienced our first night with freezing weather more than a week ago, maybe two weeks ago; I forgot to note the date. Last week I began cleaning up the frozen garden. As I pulled morning glory vines from the trellises, I noticed that the freeze-dried blossoms still held rich color that contrasted beautifully against the blackened green of the leaves. Beauty in death.

So I went through the garden searching for other bits of beauty.

And they were there, of course. While the wilted landscape looks like a mess from a distance, looking closer changes my perspective. After all, the morning glories  looked like just a wilted mess until I got up close enough to see the colors.

Here are a few of the sights I found with a few minutes of shutter snapping.


Dried ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) plants. Time to dig their medicinal roots.
Fig leaves curled in on themselves.

Last of the echinacea blooms. Appears to be a chance hybrid of E. paradoxa
and one other echinacea species in my garden.
And the red of blueberry leaves.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Bugged about Dinner?

Grasshopper preparing to fly.
The conventional way that gardeners look at insects and other creepy crawlers is with the question, "friend or foe?"

However, with a subtle change in perspective you can take the word "foe" right out, although I'm not sure that "friend" would always be the right term. I'm a fan of looking at the plant-munching insects as simply critters being themselves and trying to survive. That doesn't mean I don't take steps to prevent them from eating my plants (such as squishing them), but changing my attitude makes a difference in how I approach that task.

Recently, we've begun to describe these critters -- in particular, the grasshoppers -- by another term; "lunch." Or perhaps "dinner," or "breakfast."

Human beings all over the world routinely consume insects as part of their normal diet. Let me add, they intentionally consume these insects, in some cases considering them delicacies. Insects and other creepy crawlies contain many nutrients, including amino acids (proteins). The critters add diversity to the diet and supplement other protein sources. In some areas they might even provide a significant portion of dietary protein. Even some vegetarian peoples will eat the buglies even if they eat no other animal proteins. In Mexico they eat roasted grasshoppers seasoned with lime and chilies. They are called chapulines.

Here in the U.S.A. however we have a general aversion to bugly critters of every kind, regardless of the benefits they provide. Eating creepy crawlies is simply out of the question. People even get hysterical when they learn that food processors can allow a certain amount of bug parts in the foods they package.

We've all eaten plenty of bugs without knowing it. I'm sure that not all of the aphids get washed off my lettuce and kale. Occasionally I find tiny caterpillars in my steamed greens, so certainly I've eaten a few. Why not take the next step and intentionally eat some of these critters?

So we've taken to hunting grasshoppers and crickets. You definitely want to cook these critters. The grasshoppers turn an interesting red color when you either saute in butter or boil them. No, they don't taste like chicken. They don't have much flavor at all, and the texture is sort of crispy. The key to catching grasshoppers is to speak calmly to them and not think about the fact that you intend to eat them. On these chilly mornings they move very slowly, but can be difficult to find. You don't need to hunt your own as you can go online and find sources for ready-to-eat bugs. An easy way to get some bug nutrition in your diet is to buy some cricket flour and add some to your favorite flour-based recipe.

Moving bugs into our diets has been touted as one way to provide protein to the growing human population in a more sustainable manner. A couple of thousand bug species are edible and routinely consumed. Here are a few common ones.

In my research I ran across Web sites describing recipes high end chefs created for using bugs. I'm intrigued by the stink bug (yes, stink bugs), which another Web site described as tasting like apples. I say "no" to the tarantula and dragonfly dishes. Not because they're creepy, but because I like spiders and dragonflies a lot in a non-culinary sort of way. I would never intentionally eat them.

One chef who has written a book of buggy cuisine piqued my interest with his description of wax moth larvae, which destroy honey bee hives by eating honey and honeycomb wax. That sort of diet sounds like one that would create some sweet meat. He said that when baked into cookies they taste like pistachios. He gave tips on cooking with insects in this 2013 interview.

I think I'd be up for some wax moth cookies. And I'm eyeing those green stink bugs with a different attitude. It seems like it wouldn't take much effort to gather enough for an intriguing stir fry. For now though, it's crickets and grasshoppers. Bon appétit.